The Bard looks impressive in Oregon this season

Few places have been harder hit by the current recession than the state of Oregon. High interest rates struck the timber-dependent economy hard. A majority of the state's sawmills have shut down for varying periods, and many towns in rural areas have taken on a ghostly air.

But then there is the bustling burg of Ashland, tucked away in a corner of the Siskiyou Mountains in southern Oregon, where the streets are thronged and cash registers still ring merrily. These may not be the best of boom times for Ashland, but neither is the town noticeably depressed. As the Ashland Daily Tidings noted in an editorial honoring the summer opening of the Oregon Shakespearean Festival, townspeople know where to look for the source of a significant share of this prosperity - the festival's three-theater complex.

The festival projects conservatively a total audience of 265,000 by the end of its 1982 season. It expects that audience to bring trade worth $17.7 million to Ashland and its environs.

Using the conventional economic multiplier of two (for the number of times a dollar turns over before it leaves a community), that means a $35 million economic impact, impressive for a community of just over 15,000. However admirable its on-stage product, for Ashland the Oregon Shakespearean Festival is scarcely art for art's sake.

Not only is the festival happily out of step with the rest of Oregon, it is at the same time marching to a different drummer than the rest of regional theater when it comes to the selling of subscriptions. Simply speaking, it doesn't do it.

Other regional theaters have depended heavily on subscription sales in the past, but these have plummeted recently. Almost certainly, this is in large part because of the national recession, but another reason may simply be that a younger, more mobile and more restless theater audience refuses to commit itself so far in advance.

But these problems have to date passed the Oregon company by. Part of the reason is the loyalty of the festival's audience, which includes a solid core of Shakespeare-lovers who make annual pilgrimages to Ashland from locations throughout the West.

Perhaps more important is the theater's subscription policy. Unlike most companies in the United States, the Oregon Shakespearean Festival performs a true repertory, with as many as eight productions playing in repeating cycles. Therefore, the vast majority of the festival's patrons can plan a single trip to Ashland at some point during the year and see several plays while they are here. This permits the company to avoid selling subscriptions.

In fact, the festival draws only a tiny percentage of its audience from its neighboring communities (only 9 percent comes from within a 125-mile radius of Ashland). The person seated next to you in the Elizabethan-replica outdoor theater is likelier to be from Seattle, San Francisco, or Boise than from the Rogue Valley. The theater also benefits from being tied to conventional tourism. Such potent natural attractions as Crater Lake, the Rogue River, and the spectacularly rugged southern Oregon coast are nearby.

The festival's managers are anything but cocksure about the future, however. They are concerned that their current prosperity may be precarious. ''We've come through the gas shortages, we seem to be holding up in the recession, but we'd be out of our minds to be complacent,'' says Bill Patton, the executive director.

He and general manager Paul Nicholson both stress that the primary ingredient in continued success will be the company's work on stage. ''We can't take it for granted,'' Mr. Nicholson says about the festival's drawing power. ''We can't just assume that we'll have that no matter what we put on.''

The festival should have no trouble holding its audience with its current lineup of productions. The Shakespearean offerings are divided between solid traditionalism and intriguing experimentation, while the season is filled out by a couple of safe, crowd-pleasing comedies and a couple of riskier contemporary works which prove highly rewarding. Taken as a whole, it is an impressive, highly varied season, performed by an acting company that maintains a consistently high level of professionalism.

The production causing the most talk is Jerry Turner's updated version of ''Julius Caesar.'' Turner, who is also the festival's artistic director, has ventured into these waters before (one recalls his ''Measure for Measure'' of a few years ago, set in fin de siecle Vienna). Updating Shakespeare can be dubious business. All too often, the transposition can be arbitrary and gimmicky, detracting from a play's values without adding anything important to its contemporary relevance.

This is certainly not so with Turner's updating. By transforming Caesar into the charismatic leader of a modern third-world country, he has made one of Shakespeare's most epic plays almost uncanny in its immediacy. If Turner is to be faulted, it must be for not going quite far enough.

The first appearance of Cal Winn as Caesar typifies the best in Turner's production. He is dressed in a beret, jaunty scarf, sunglasses, and designer uniform complete with cape, and the impact of his appearance immediately says to the audience that, yes, Caesar could be a third-world dictator. And Winn's air of condescending geniality and erratic moodiness suits the image.

It is nicely augmented by Barry Krafts's breezy Mark Antony, a most plausible barracks-room sycophant. Throughout the production, there are moments of deep modern resonance, as we move through a recognizable power struggle and guerrilla war lit by searchlights and underscored by the sound of helicopter rotors.

But Turner has chosen to keep the context of these events vague, and as a result the production's modern focus remains frustratingly fuzzy. Turner and costumer Jeannie Davidson have chosen to make this Rome a third-world melange, with primarily Arabic flavoring. We are left without the proper clues to allow us to understand the internal workings of this ''Rome'' - who might be related to whom, who belongs to what social class, which groups might conceivably be allied. In a third-world country, dress makes all the difference. Whether men wear burnooses or not, whether women wear the chador or not, should provide us with crucial information. Here the costumes are unspecific and provide only atmosphere.

As a result, Turner's production is full of images and ideas, but leaves us unsure as to what really happened in this particular, mythical Rome. Yet the images and ideas hang in the mind - this ''Julius Caesar'' is unfulfilling but compelling.

Audience members of a more traditional bent will probably be happiest with the handsomely mounted productions of ''Romeo and Juliet'' and ''Henry V.''

Director Dennis Bigelow does concentrate on spectacle rather than tearjerking. But his production (costumed gorgeously and appropriately this time by Davidson in Cavalier style) is full of striking moments, beautifully posed stage pictures, swirling colors, and exciting swordplay. I shall have to confess that I don't find Shakespeare's play especially moving in any case. The young lovers to my mind are overly passionate adolescents rather than tragic figures. But ''Romeo and Juliet'' is a splendid spectacle, and for those approaching it in that frame of mind, Bigelow's production is nearly perfect.

The production is also blessed with splendid acting all the way around. Kyle MacLachlan and Gloria Biegler give us a pair of young lovers who are radiant and enraptured, but also childish and silly at times. The performances are entirely in keeping with the spirit of the production.

And then there are Karen Norris's believably hilarious Nurse, Wayne Ballantyne's warm and human Friar, James Carpenter's leering Mercutio, and Dan Mayes's deliciously despicable Tybalt.

Traditionalists will be particularly fond of Pat Patton's full-bodied ''Henry V.'' Patton takes us on a straightforward march through English history, ably led by Bruce T. Gooch in the title role.

On the other hand, traditionalists would be well advised to run the other direction from this year's ''Comedy of Errors.'' Julian Lopez-Morillas, a guest director up from the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival, has made over Shakespeare's fast-and-furious farce into a compendium of vaudeville shticks. Many of them work, and the audience is kept chuckling throughout. But Lopez-Morillas doesn't seem able to make choices. There are so many ideas being tried that the audience frequently doesn't know where to focus, and scenes are not given a chance to build.

Warren Travis's costumes are a show in themselves, as dazzling an array of designs as you'll ever see paraded on a stage - but then, that's part of the problem with the production, since costumes with a life of their own tend to turn actors into mannequins.

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